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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

hive mind

(1990’s | science fiction | “zeitgeist,” “will of the people,” “conventional wisdom,” “groupthink”)

It all started with the bees. The British apiarist H.J. Wadey probably did not invent the term, but he used it in the 1940’s to describe the process by which lots and lots of bees, each of which has next to no mental capacity on its own, work together to create an intelligence that cannot be accounted for simply by adding up the microcapacities of each bee in the colony. There was something a bit mystical about it, and that transcendent quality was picked up by other authorities on bees. From there it became property of science fiction writers, for whom the concept was tailor-made. In their hands, it could retain the sense of a purer intelligence emerging from the collective, or it could be a means of imposing zombie conformity and obedience on the rest of us. Science fiction runs to utopia or dystopia anyway, and the hive mind can be used to exemplify both, even in the same book. The phrase had not become common outside of science-fiction circles; I doubt most Americans were familiar with it when I was young.

There the matter rested until the mid-1990’s, when the expression received the benefit of two cultural megaphones: first Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired magazine, then the film Star Trek: First Contact. Kelly saw the hive mind as the result of amplifying human capability with computers (preferably implanted) to enhance our collective intelligence and create a larger force, human yet superhuman, that would change everything for the better — although individual drones might not fare so well. A year or two later, Star Trek: First Contact came out, which featured the Borg as the villain. The Borg had appeared on Star Trek: The Next Generation (the Patrick Stewart cast, which also populated the film), but this seems to have been the first time the phrase “hive mind” ever appeared in the script. The Wired geeks and the Star Trek geeks between them formed a critical mass, and “hive mind” emerged from the sci-fi shadows and began to be encountered much more often. The onset of social media certainly didn’t slow the spread of the phrase; here again, the concept may be beneficent or noxious.

Kelly was an optimist, positing that the computer-aided hive mind would lead to a much greater capacity to solve human problems, whereas the Borg represents the dark side, gobbling up plucky individualists and producing numbing conformity while enriching its own hive mind with the contributions of other civilizations (sounds like imperialism, or the one percent). My sense is that today the pessimists are winning; “hive mind” has become a favored grenade to toss across the political divide, as stalwarts of the right and left accuse their opponents of stupidly parroting the sentiments put forth by their respective opinion makers. On this view, the hive mind is simply an overlord to which the bad guys pledge dumb fealty. (Of course, both left and right have their share of unreasoning myrmidons, but I wonder if they may be more characteristic of the right wing. “Dittohead” is no longer fashionable, but it’s worth noting that only right-wingers called themselves “dittoheads,” often with pride.) Even if the insulting use predominates right now, the more hopeful meaning may rise again. Take UNU, for example, which promises to help us “think together” by setting up a “swarm intelligence.”

Once you get away from the notion of a literal superbrain, the metaphorical uses of the expression come quickly into view. A single brain can itself be seen as a teeming hive mind, with neurons equivalent to drones, each doing its tiny duty but producing prodigious results by subordinating itself. (A more recent issue of Wired showcases an example of this sort of analogy, which has no counterpart for the queen bee.) More generally, the hive mind may serve as a symbol of our politics, in which millions combine to create and support a unified national government. (If that idealized picture makes you snicker, you’re not alone.) Our national motto, E pluribus unum, means “out of many, one,” and that’s not a bad summary of how a hive mind works. No single individual knows everything or can do it all by herself; the nation must muddle along making the most of whatever contributions it can get from hard-working citizens, who create the polity by banding together, at least partly unconsciously, to assert a collective will.

This post was inspired by the one and only lovely Liz from Queens, who nominated “hive mind” only last week, thereby sparing me the trouble of coming up with a new expression to write about. Thanks, baby!

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